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I was in Bangkok. A 9/11 Story

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • September 12th, 2011
  • 9 min read

You’ll often hear people say “I’ll never forget that day”, especially in reference to September 11th, 2001 when two Boeing 767s with hundreds of terrified passengers crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers with such velocity and the explosive force of nearly 24,000 U.S. gallons of jet fuel each, that both planes left nary a trace. They disintegrated. Hundreds of passengers and even more tower occupants were vaporized.

In the ensuing hours we watched people jumping to their deaths rather than burn alive, and then finally we watched both towers fall in on themselves from what we now know to be heat weakened structural supports. It hardly seems necessary to say “I’ll never forget that day”, but in the time since I’ve been witness to many who have done just that. Which is the bigger crime?

I’d just returned from class. I was in Bangkok completing an MBA program and I never enjoyed the drive from the Pleonchit district, mostly because no matter how many times I made the drive, I’d still get lost or stuck in crazy traffic. Since, we’ve been blessed with decent GPS devices. My habit is to take an immediate shower when coming in from ‘the city’, because we’d often be covered in airborne diesel grime, smells, and sweat. I was living alone at the Greenery House on Ladphrao. My apartment had three floors and my bath was on the second floor. I padded up the stairs, opened the laptop and a beer (not sure which first) and my home page Yahoo booted up.

Immediately I saw a headline “Airplane Hits World Trade Center” and registered it as a hapless private pilot who must have fallen asleep or died at the controls. Small plane, big building, it was interesting but I moved on to other news. Something nagged at me though, something I could feel but can’t describe. Reaching for the television remote I flipped it to CNN, the only decent English news channel I could get in our building. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Live reports were coming in, American Airlines jetliner, flight 11, had crashed into North Tower 1. Live video feeds from a great distance showed smoke billowing out of the tower and you could hear the angry sirens of emergency vehicles in the background.

I don’t think I moved. Not to work the computer, not to touch my beer. Maybe if I moved I’d upset the space time continuum or something.. and more bad would happen. Only my eyes moved as they scanned the television screen. It didn’t take long before you could hear people’s screams rising above the sirens in the background and then the camera moved to show a second jetliner heading towards the towers.

Surreal? Of course. The world had never been witness to such imagery. Some describe feeling helpless as they watched United Flight 175 torpedo into South Tower 2 with the same velocity and force as flight 11 had before it. But for most of us, this was the first time we’d seen it. We saw the aftermath of flight 11, but now we were watching flight 175 in real time heading towards South Tower 2 knowing hundreds of passengers were about to be incinerated. It couldn’t be real, but it was. In horror tens of millions of people from around the world watched flight 175 disappear into South Tower 2. The world shared the imagery, and the pain. I couldn’t take my eyes from the television.

The next hours brought us the news of American Airlines flight 77 barreling into the Pentagon along with more stunning imagery, and then finally the immediate mystery of United Airlines flight 93 going down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In between images of people jumping from the towers and huge clouds of smoke on the Manhattan skyline, mortified talking heads brought us the news and what imagery they could muster on short notice of the damage at the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville where we now know real heroes will forever lay.

Talk of “where’s the President” started filtering in and we learned he was visiting a school, and then was spirited away on Air Force One to a base in Nebraska, to finally later that evening return back to our Nation’s Capitol. But before this happened perhaps the most horrific thing we saw that day happened. First Tower 1, and subsequently Tower 2, fell in on themselves not unlike a building being demolished by placed explosives.

And I sat on my couch, in my apartment in Ladphrao, Bangkok, Thailand, watching this happen in real time in a state of disbelief or perhaps it was more a state of non-belief. What God would let this happen, a question I’ve heard asked thousands of times since. The commentators went silent with only the sirens in the background as Tower 1 fell down on itself right after a guest on CNN told us that hundreds of police and firemen were inside the building helping residents evacuate. We knew those emergency workers, and perhaps thousands of civilians, were in the building when it collapsed. As the dust cloud in volume exceeded the smoke clouds, and then blew across the bay, all that remained was a pile of rubble. Even the most common layman immediately knew there could be no survivors. And then Tower 2 fell in..

My feelings were much the same as anyone else’s on that day, but different in some important ways. In another life I spent four years as a San Diego Police Officer and the emergency workers in those collapsed buildings whom I’ve never met felt like family. It was like a stake through my heart. I’m also retired military, or more accurately and something I’ve never shared on this site, a 100% rated disabled combat veteran. Only 2-3 of my closest friends in Thailand knew this about me. I’m one of ‘those.’ At this time I was in my early 40’s, and not long out of the military, and it hadn’t been long since my beeper would notify me I’d be responding. I felt like I should be doing something, but physical limitations and geography made this impossible. So I watched on the television.

The door bell rang. WTF, it was after midnight by now? Opening the door my apartment manager and two of my housekeepers were standing there with their heads bowed afraid to look at me, but offering trays of food. You could feel their sympathy as if it surrounded the group and bounced off them like a force field. It was a good feeling, a feeling I needed. We stood there together without a word for nearly a full minute, in a way it was like I was taking in their energy, what they were offering, and when I was full I accepted the tray of food with a quiet thank you and closed the door behind them. For the last few hours I’d felt very alone, but not anymore.

I didn’t sleep that night, or the next. I became a zombie in front of the television. My housekeepers would let themselves in, clean, leave food, and not say a word. I didn’t call anyone, I didn’t communicate with anyone in any way. Probably like most people I soaked in myriad information sources until I physically couldn’t stay awake, and then I slept the sleep of the dead. The dreams came in rapid fire one after the other. I’ll keep these private.

Days after the attack I finally left my apartment to attend class. On the way down the several flights of stairs and into the car park many of the building staff stopped what they were doing and wai’d very deep, security did as well. This was a one-time display of solidarity, their way of showing me they knew I was feeling what all Americans and most of the citizens of the world were feeling. Undefinable loss, sorrow, certainly anger, and perhaps trepidation of what was yet to come. The unknown.

Weeks later I started answering my phone and talking to family and friends. It took that long to wrap my mind around what had happened, and what would come of it. My family had come to expect from me a bit above the average response, yet I had nothing for them. All I could do was listen and try to understand rather than anger from what I considered uneducated and/or thoughtless comments.

In the ensuing years I honed and then even perfected my ability to not feel the need to respond to such talk. The truth is, people were expressing many emotions relative to their personal frame of reference, and they probably couldn’t understand my feelings any more than I understood theirs. And of course I simply fell somewhere on the indefinite line, placed between less and more cogent understandings. Didn’t we all?

So this is where I was on 9/11. Everyone has such a story inside them, but this one is mine. The following years revealed much about this event none of us could know at the time, wars were started which continue today. A united world fragmented, but recently seems to have repaired itself. For this I’m thankful.

I had a long sleepless period following 9/11. But not from what you’d think. My second son was a Marine Reservist. No, he wasn’t one of those who enlisted in a patriotic fervor, he had enlisted 18 months previously simply to qualify for educational benefits and to one-up the old man. My Marine son was in the 1st Exp, the unit who first crossed over into Iraq from Kuwait on the opening day of the invasion.

His story, which took years to extract, is incredible. I mention this because it’s hard to relate, and therefore appreciate, what these incredibly young men and women have gone through. What they gave up, what they experienced, and the who.. who didn’t come home. Reserve units are close, they live and train together from the same geographical area. You know each other’s families, you know where they work, the cars they drive. When you lose members you lose a part of yourself. You drive by where they used to live, you run into their families while shopping for groceries, you are constantly reminded. I didn’t sleep much during his entire deployment. Nine months after his first deployment they sent him on another. To the Sunni Triangle.

All citizens of the world felt 9/11. But I submit, those whose family members were emergency responders, who had family members in the Towers, who went to war or watched family members go to war, who were the many victims of war, those and others I couldn’t list because of their vast numbers, they felt it more.

The world changed, right before my eyes, and I watched it happen from half the world away. It will never change back, but perhaps someday the wounds will close and positive change will take place. We must never forget, lest we risk not learning from the valuable experiences emanating from this most tragic event. We all had to be somewhere when 9/11 happened. I was in Bangkok, Thailand.

Until Next Time..


Stickman's thoughts:

I know the Americans I was working with at the time found it very hard being so far from home when this terrible event took place.